Tax justice and why little has changed since Heart of Darkness
10 August 2016
In 1899, Joseph Conrad wrote a novel which starts in the ever-so-civilised London of the late nineteenth century. It’s called Heart of Darkness, many of you will know it, and essentially it’s about a trader from a transnational corporation, who journeys upriver in Congo to buy ivory, and ends up worshipped as a tyrannical god in the middle of the jungle.
And on that trip the antihero recognises, through the horrors he has seen and perpetrated in African countries, in the name of his business of course, the utter savagery on which our so-called civilisation is built.
When I first heard about the problem of tax havens – back in 2002 at the European Social Forum – I met a guy called John Christensen. And he told me that, underlying everything, our relationship with Congo hadn’t changed so much in the 100 years since that book was written.
At the centre of that relationship, we turn what should be the richest country in the world – the Democratic Republic of Congo – into the poorest country in the world. And the key way we do that, is a system of finance which indeed originated in the City of London back in the 1950s as a way of maintaining the power and prestige of Britain as our Empire collapsed around us.
If we can no longer directly rule people and countries, said the financiers in London, then let us harness the wealth of the richest, let’s suck money into this City, and the small islands that we still hang on to, and let’s build an empire of finance.
And we will be important because the rich who really run the world – who make their money investing and trading – or exploiting and pillaging depending on how you look at it – will always stash that money here to boost our currency and our economy. And we won’t ask too many questions as to where that money comes from, or if and where you paid taxes on it.
So through this financial system the world’s richest corporations and investors turn the precious stones of Congo into untaxed wealth that ends up in Western bank accounts, with no oversight from governments.
And this system has grown and grown and stands as the number one way which wealth in our world is pulled from the poorest to further enrich the richest. Indeed it explains, more than any other single mechanism, why the rich are getting so much richer and inequality is building to historically unprecedented levels with all the social turmoil that entails.
And John told me all this – and this as I say was 15 years ago – and I wished him luck because I thought campaigning on tax sounded like a nightmare. No-one really likes tax, especially after it has been denigrated for decades.
The tax justice movement
Well fortunately I was wrong. 15 years later, we can honestly say there is a huge, global movement for tax justice. And it started as a very grassroots thing – not by big organisations, though they’ve played a great role. This is something which ordinary people across Europe have built and been politicised by.
So we had a whole network start up in Britain called UK Uncut – a direct action movement which occupied high street shops which were dodging their taxes and high street banks which were helping them to do it.
And in the middle of austerity Britain, we turned these banks and shops into libraries, healthcare clinics, schools – all those aspects of a good society which we could pay for if only corporations paid their taxes. Thousands of people – mostly young people–took part in these actions over a year or more. For many it was their first political action.
This is one of many many actions which have brought tax dodging to public attention
- A group of activists went to liberate the tax haven island of Jersey as a publicity stunt
- There are tax justice walking tours organised through the city of London
- A fair tax mark – rather like a fair trade mark –being developed by ChristianAid
- There are fair tax local authorities and fair tax universities
And today any company that runs into trouble for whatever reason, activists will go to look at how much tax they paid. Last week a burger chain called Byron burgers was targeted by activists because they cooperated with the policy to deport their own workers who were deemed to be illegal immigrants.
The next day, the company was accused by campaigners and journalists of hiding profits to reduce their tax bill. This is routine now.
Even right wing media are fairly supportive. To some degree it has cut through right-left politics.
But probably the most important thing about the tax campaign for me, is that it shows how a mass campaign can transform corporate ideology. For 40 years we have been told, not only that taxes are a nuisance or unpleasant or that taxes are often spent on bad things, but that they obstruct our freedom. That the less tax we pay, the more we are free.
That ideology of freedom has been painstakingly constructed by our opponents. It’s been very successful. The reason, we’ve been told, why progressive governments can’t come to power in the West is that no one will vote to raise their taxes.
Now admittedly we’ve talked mostly about corporate tax and taxes of the super-rich. But nonetheless I think the very concept of tax has changed in people’s heads as a result of this campaign.
Absence of tax is not seen as freedom by the majority in the west anymore. Look at the US election campaign – key messages aren’t about not paying more tax, they’re about forcing corporations and the wealthy to pay their tax. That’s a massive shift in our society – much bigger than the actual changes we’ve made to the taxation system.
And it makes it possible to go much further. It lays the basis for a fairer society. It means that concepts like redistribution - anathema for much of the last 40 years – can once again be talked about as a positive basis for a good society. Globally it moves us beyond the idea that dealing with poverty is about giving charity, or giving aid even.
It also turns us from consumers into citizens. The neo liberal economy has transformed us into consumers – to fund our lifestyles, including healthcare, education and so on – we increasingly need to take out debt.
Debt makes us think of ourselves in terms of isolated, alienated consumers. Just as the free market ideology holds we are. But when these things are funded from taxation, we think of ourselves as citizens.
My organisation is part of Attac, and Attac was founded to campaign for a financial transaction tax – as a means of showing that our economies had been captured by finance, and that it was possible to get them back again. I think the tax justice movement has built on that and taken it to the next level. It is a symbol of injustice and power in our world.
So where next? Of course there’s huge work to do in terms of achieving a democratic tax structure.
But we need to go beyond this. We need not just to call for the wealthiest to pay their current share of tax but to argue strongly for a far more progressive form of taxation. Corporate taxation is at all-time low in many countries. We shouldn’t be afraid of arguing for higher taxation.
And if we argue for that, we need to make sure we control capital – because if we don’t corporations will continue to say ‘we’re moving somewhere more friendly’. We need to stop corporations playing off countries against one another, to turn the global economy on its head.
If we can transform the understanding of tax, we can transform all of the ideology which holds neo-liberalism in place.
If we can use taxation to show people the unfairness of the economy in the north, we can also use it to show injustice globally. Redistribution at a global level requires not the tiny amount of money we give called aid, which sounds like a piece of charity – a ‘good deed’ but a global taxation structure which can really redistribute wealth.
And that brings me back to the starting point. If you were to rewrite Heart of Darkness today, perhaps it wouldn’t look so different, except that you might want to travel from Congo – where the minerals that our society relies upon are still mined in atrocious conditions, just as ivory and rubber were once harvested – to the City of London – the real heart of darkness. Where our societies have encouraged all the worst characteristics of humanity – greed, selfishness and avarice – and told us that that is the pinnacle of civilisation.
The tax campaign has caught on because many of us do not believe that that is the pinnacle of civilisation – of what we as human beings are capable of. And so we must turn it on its head.
Redistribution of wealth from rich to poor – that’s a civilised society.
Ensuring every single person in the world has their human rights met – that’s a civilised society.
A world where people feel themselves to be citizens– not consumers – that’s a civilised society.
That’s why the tax campaign is so important.
This blog post is based on a speech given at the World Social Forum taking place in Montreal, Canada right now.
Image by UK Uncut